Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Grade 3 anxiety

My grandfather used to play the piano around various working men's clubs in the mining villages where I grew up. In 1980, on his way to one of those clubs, he walked out in front of a bus, was hit by a car and killed instantly. He was one of the reasons why I wanted to learn to play the piano, and so I pressured my parents to give me lessons. Eventually, a teacher was produced and I went on to have weekly lessons for the rest of my childhood. My younger sister also had lessons, and we made sure we both did 20 minutes of practice a day, timed to precision with an electronic timer.

I was never sure where my perpetually cash-strapped parents found the money for those lessons, and I never once thought to ask how much they were costing them. But it's a credit to them that we got them and were never made to feel guilty about it.

My teacher, Mrs Terry was the poshest person my family had ever encountered, and I never got over my fear of her and was able to relax in her presence. I still have all of the piano books I learnt from, with her neat cursive handwriting in the corner of each page, marking dates from 1983. Although Mrs Terry was never big on praise (and she didn't seem to like putting children in for exams), apparently my sister and I were held up as exemplary students because we practiced 20 minutes daily, and our electronic timer was used to torture less motivated students. We did not realise it at the time, but we later found out that we were hated by other pupils who had never met us.

I took Grade 1 piano in 1985 and then Grade 2 in 1987. Then my parents decided I needed to concentrate on my GCSEs, so lessons stopped. I hid upstairs guiltily on the day when she was told her services were no longer needed, so I never got to say goodbye and thankyou. And of course, she died years ago, so that's a wrong I'll never get to put right.

I continued playing the piano, and even had a brief job as a student playing in a small restaurant on Friday nights. I still have a piano - a £2000 electric upright variety that sounds and feels just as good as the real thing and never needs tuning. But I don't play it every day any more.

However, when my fella caught glandular fever last October, and was stuck at home for three months, he decided to take it upon himself to learn to play the piano. He's much more of an alpha-male type than me, and within a few weeks had figured out the basics and was whizzing through my old tuition books at the rate of about one a month (it had taken me about one year to get through each one). And, because he's so goal-driven, he's decided to take Grade 1, and has also persuaded me to take Grade 3. I'm sure the 25 year gap won't matter too much.

So I've bought the pieces and am practising them, along with horrible sets of scales. Playing a piece to perfection is horrible, I continually make stupid mistakes, and after my nightly practice sessions I normally feel hot and slightly nauseous, leaving the keyboard with a pounding heart and shaking hands. I've even had bad dreams about the exam. It's a very long time since I've sat any form of exam (I suppose my PhD viva counts as the last one, and that was 11 years ago). I normally set exams. My fella is much more relaxed about the whole thing, he LOVES learning scales and is already planning his Grade 2 exam in December.

I have until June to work out the awful scales. And somewhere, in Piano Heaven, I can imagine Mrs Terry shaking her head disappointedly, and tapping the page with her (always sharp) pencil. Maybe it's time to dust off the electronic timer.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

You know You're Old When....

Another thing I did last weekend was visit an Abercrombie and Fitch store. My friend Kathryn finds them outrageous because of an incident involving a woman with one arm who got a job there and then claimed that she was bullied out of her job. She refuses to let her husband go in, but she went in with me so we could have "a look". I think it was as close as I'll ever get to cheating with a married woman.

Once we had walked through the fake frontage which is designed to make you feel like you are entering an exclusive beach club in the Hamptons you are plunged into a disorienting world where all of your senses are simultaneously assaulted. First it is dark - very dark - nightclub dark. Let's just say that people with cataracts are not welcome. Then there is the blaring music which I (of course) didn't recognise because I am over the age of 21. And there is the smells. Once our eyes had adjusted to the gloom we made out a 14 year old shop assistant who was spraying everything with scent. She welcomed us by using an Americanism like "Hi ya'll" which sounded ill-fitting on her Geordie accent. My fella, who has to hurry past the ground floor of any department store with a hanky over his nose due to allergies, would have not been able to cope.

There were clothes for sale, but on the walls were pictures of young men who weren't wearing any clothes at all. It's like going to a supermarket and seeing pictures of empty plates everywhere.

We lasted about two minutes before it was too much. On the way out another 14 year old said goodbye in American-speak to us. We staggered out, squinting at the light and slightly deaf.

"You do realise that we were the oldest people in there," I said. "The assistants were probably laughing at us and calling us the pensioner couple and saying we smelled of Santogen."

I read today that Abercrombie and Fitch are closing down quite a few of their stores. Perhaps they might want to consider expanding their market to say, people under 25.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Back to the 80s

In 1989, when I was 17, my friend Kathryn phoned me excitedly to tell me that she had been rooting through her elder sister's wardrobe and found a Readers Digest boxed set of "The Sensational 70s" LPs. We listened, amazed at how awful yet great they were, and suddenly turned into Generation Xers - ironically appreciating older cultural offerings.

This was just the start. Before the year was out, we were holding 1970s parties, dragooning our friends along and demanding that they wear their parents' old clothes and even wigs. We stuck pictures of ankhs on the walls of our bedrooms, put in a red light bulb and freaked out to disco and the Wombles. One party ended up with us all wandering around Peterlee town centre late at night, posing with shopping trolleys in our 1970s costumes (we actually weren't that different to what anyone else was wearing, but I'd hoped that we might have bumped into a lone drunk and convinced him that he'd travelled back in time).

Now, retro is everywhere - there are even 1990s bars (and I still live in the 1990s). But we at least have the satisfaction that we were ahead of a trend. I'm sure if we'd been living in London, rather than the backwaters of nowhere, we'd have been "spotted" and given our own youth tv programme to present. Ah well.

Kathryn and me are still friends, although we don't live close by any more. At the weekend, I visited her, and thought it would be even more ironic to hold a 1980s party. How unaware we were at the time of holding our 1970s parties, that one day we'd be remincising about the very decade we were trying to escape from! How's that for Generation X!
Starter" - Ritz crackers and soft cheese, festooned with nuts and bits of pineapple. I was already feeling slightly naseous by the end of this course.

For the "main" - potato waffles and Findus Crispy Pancakes (cheese flavour). When I used to eat these in the actual 1980s, one of my meaner friends said "Oh Paul, get a class lift." You don't have to chew any of this. It just sliiiiides down. And it tastes of nothing. I like how one of the crispy pancakes has vomitted out its contents.

Sunday lunch time in our house between 1984 and 1988 was always ended by Vienetta, as Britain made an early attempt to emulate Italian living. Strangely, the ice-cream tasted exactly the same as potato waffles but the innovation was in the use of crunchy layers of chocolate to add texture - something largely absent from 80s dining.

And here it is. Once the silver/grey wrapping it came in had been removed (a bit like a giant choc ice wrapper), it is resplendent.

"I'LL have a Babycham". It tastes of yeast infection. Hangover guaranteed, even if you only have one. I had two.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A special lady

Man on perfume counter in Kendalls department store, Manchester today: "Can I ask you a question sir. Do you have a special lady in your life?" Me: "No, I'm gay." And that killed it. I love it when coming out means you avoid a hard-sell sales encounter.